Train up a child . . .


As Adventist parents we face some difficult educational choices. In many ways it’s a dilemma born from privilege. The options are numerous—public, selective public, private, selective private, single-sex versus coeducational, and even home-schooling. Our Church has a long and justifiably proud history of providing quality primary, secondary and tertiary education to young Adventists and, increasingly, to children and youth from diverse faith backgrounds. For Christian parents of young children contemplating the various educational paths, the choice is by no means clear. 

This article is not written to recommend one particular schooling method over another. Indeed parents often worry about the role school plays not only in children’s learning, but in shaping their characters, and ultimately influencing them to accept or reject God. While it’s true that school influences are powerful moulders of impressionable minds, I believe God was talking specifically to parents when He said: “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). It is in the home environment that a child learns to love God. Nevertheless, the choice of schooling can augment the parents’ home teaching in varying and important ways. I can speak from my experience of my own schooling and outline pointers that may prove helpful for parents contemplating this important decision. This is a subject especially close to my heart now that I am a father contemplating the best educational path for my young daughter, Isabel, and son, Lachlan.

Make your home an oasis and an open forum for discussion and encouragement.

My first five years of primary schooling were delivered in a metropolitan Adventist primary school. I was then accepted into a selective private boys’ school (Sydney Grammar), where I completed primary and secondary schooling. 

Both schools offered a wholistic curriculum in academic and other pursuits. Both schools encouraged the cream to rise to the top, and both struggled to nurture and motivate students who were not academically focused. Both schools offered guidance in religious studies, though the former was more integrated and all-encompassing where the latter was very optional and unashamedly pluralistic. For example, readings at assembly each Friday morning at Sydney Grammar School rotated between the major world religions’ texts—the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads and the Torah. This seemed appropriate for a non-Christian, multicultural school, and it neither bothered nor challenged me spiritually because Adventist philosophy had already been so ingrained in me. For a child with a weak Adventist upbringing, however, this may have been confusing and a potential stumbling block.

The transition from a small Adventist primary school to a large selective private school in grade five was not an easy one for me. I went from top of the class to middle of the pack; from friends with everyone to knowing no-one. And it’s where my young faith was challenged for the first time. I met children from all walks of life. I was now faced with the scenario where the majority of extra-curricular activities were on Friday night or Sabbaths. I had to opt out of many of the activities that I had previously excelled in and enjoyed—athletics, swimming and team sports (although this didn’t stop me from winning the age champion in Years 5 and 6 at the school athletics carnival, held mid-week). I was unable to participate in inter-school sporting competitions as these occurred on Sabbaths. The same could be said for musical endeavours, with the vast majority of concerts/performances held on Friday nights.

This, you could say, greatly limited my education through late primary school and throughout high school. I certainly look back and have some regrets in this area. My older brother, who attended a selective boys’ public school, was able to participate in most activities he chose, as these were scheduled on weeknights and weekdays. The flipside of missing out on school sporting and arts events is that it made me learn to stand up for my beliefs, and I was able to talk to many of my friends about the Sabbath. Would it have been harder to stand up for my beliefs in an environment where my peers were supposed to be Adventist Christians? It’s perhaps easier to swim against the tide when one knows which way the tide is going.

The challenges through high school did not stop with the Sabbath issue. By Year 9 I was faced with the reality of teenage binge drinking and substance abuse. It’s only through the strong upbringing at home, and by the grace of God, that I was able to resist these vices. The temptation to join “the crowd” was strong and sustained throughout senior high school and well into my university years. I cannot comment on whether this temptation would have been any less (or greater) in a Christian environment, but I would urge parents, youth leaders, pastors and teachers not to ignore this issue. Particularly, with regards to the consumption of alcohol, we as a Church need a united front. I can positively say that my parents were by far the most influential of my educators on the issue of alcohol and other harmful substances.

On the academic front, high school was very good for me and it nurtured a competitive environment that enabled me to do well enough to study science and medicine, and to pursue a career in surgery (though I have peers who went to Adventist schools who also were accepted into medical school and other demanding university courses). Being academically “middle of the road” at this highly selective private school may have pushed me to achieve more than I would have in a less pressured academic environment, though of course I say that with a large amount of uncertainty. I was still able to achieve my grade 8 piano certificate in the 10th grade of school (this without any help or tuition from the school), and I played many sports to my heart’s content, just not competitively.

The inevitable cost of not taking part in Saturday sports, teenage partying, alcohol and drug-taking was a loss of popularity. Friends came and went. The friends who stood by me were the ones who respected me for my beliefs, but for the most part I was considered pretty “uncool”. Adventist parents who send their children to non-Christian schools need to pay close attention to their child, as the signs of social isolation can be subtle. Make your home an oasis and an open forum for discussion and encouragement. Children who are experiencing peer pressure, loneliness, or having their faith shaken to the core, especially need a home environment filled with love, assurance, encouragement, compassion and recreation. 

Despite these hardships, I would rate my experience at a non-Christian selective private school as, overall, a positive one. It’s indeed possible to come out the other end a strong Seventh-day Adventist Christian and I am testimony to that. But I also have friends who went to Adventist schools who are strong Adventist Christians. 

Parents who wish to send their children to non-Christian schools should not expect to abdicate their vital role in creating a Christian home, as it’s in the home that children learn to love and obey God. Our instruction is vital to our children coming out of school on “the other side” balanced and grounded Christians regardless of their schooling environment. If you are contemplating sending your child to a non-Christian school, don’t do so without much thought and prayer. At the same time, don’t shy away from non-Christian schools for fear of their bad influence on your child—you are your child’s most important instructor. Your child will mingle with children of different faiths and cultures, and will daily have opportunities to share their faith. To those parents whose children have left the faith, who may be feeling remorseful for their decisions regarding their children’s education—pray for them. The journey is far from over, and God is not slack concerning His promise (2 Peter 3:9).      

Tom Pennington is a physician engaged in surgical training. He is currently based in Lismore, NSW.